Breaking News: Kevin Welner’s Charter School Dirty Dozen

Dirty Dozen comic

Welcome to the third installment of Cloaking Inequity’s new comic series Breaking News. Today the comic represents Kevin Welner’s “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment. Dr. Welner is a professor of education policy at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and director of the National Education Policy Center. What are the dirty dozen? Welner was inspired to write this analysis after reading a February 2013 article written by Reuters reporter Stephanie Simon. Her article described a variety of ways that charter schools “get the students they want.” The NEPC release states:

Charter schools may be public, but they can shape their student enrollment in surprising ways. This is done though a dozen different practices that often decrease the likelihood of students enrolling with a disfavored set of characteristics, such as students with special needs, those with low test scores, English learners, or students in poverty.

When charter schools fail to serve a cross-section of their community, they undermine their own potential and they distort the larger system of public education. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Welner. “The task for policymakers is to redesign charter school policies in ways that provide choice without undermining other important policy goals. For instance, being innovative doesn’t require being selective or restrictive in enrollments.”

“These practices,” Welner explains, “also make it difficult for researchers to accurately compare the effectiveness of charter and non-charter schools.” High-quality research studies make great efforts to include a comparison group of non-charter school students that matches charter school students in key ways such as race, free and reduced lunch status, and gender.

Yet the many ways charters influence enrollment create daunting obstacles for researchers. Welner cautions researchers and policymakers: “These studies cannot account for all these practices merely by research design or statistical adjustments. Studies of charter school performance are almost surely attributing results to charter school instructional programs that are caused in part by charter school enrollment practices.”

Are all charter schools bad news by excluding students of certain types? Of course not! I was an instructor at an Aspire charter school and I currently serve on the UT-Austin elementary charter school board… but… Welner:

There are plenty of charter schools that try to enroll a diverse and representative group of students.  There are plenty of others that use a potent combination of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ practices to shape their enrollments in ways that flout our societal understandings of public schooling.

See all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on charters here. Check CI’s dispute with KIPP on their attrition here.

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Welner’s Dirty Dozen:

#1: Description and Design: Which Niche?

The designers of a new charter school face a variety of decisions. Will the school portray itself as focused on rigorous academics? Or perhaps the design will cater to children with autism? Will it have the facilities to provide free or reduced-price lunch? Will it have teachers for English learners and for students with special needs? In short, which niche will it be designed to fill? Given the high-stakes accountability context, a school designed to serve an at-risk student population will face greater survival obstacles. Low test scores lead to lower school performance ratings and eventually to closure. In contrast, high test scores lead to acclaim and to positive word-of-mouth from realtors, press, friends and neighbors. In short, nothing succeeds like success, and the greatest determinants of success are the raw materials – the students who enroll.

#2: Location, Location, Location

As has long been recognized by the courts, the siting of a school is an effective way to influence student demographics (Kennedy, 2007). A school that intends to serve students who live in an urban area will locate in that neighborhood, while a school with an intent to serve a suburban population will make a different decision. Because families with less wealth tend to have fewer transportation options, this is particularly important when thinking about disadvantaged groups.

#3: Mad Men: The Power of Marketing and Advertising

Charter schools are not allowed to directly select students based on those students’ demographic characteristics. But if a school wants to enroll English learners, it will produce and distribute materials in the first language of those families. If it does not, it will produce and distribute materials overwhelmingly in English. Similar decisions can be made regarding special needs populations and lower-income populations. And if it wants students with higher incoming test scores and a drive to excel academically, it can advertise as “college prep” and highlight the rigor of its curriculum. Even the visual images used in marketing materials can send distinct messages about who is welcome and who is not. When a school makes deliberate decisions about how and where to market, it is exercising influence over who applies.

#4: Hooping It Up: Conditions Placed on Applications

Through the application process, charter schools can control the pipeline that leads to enrolled students. If less desirable students do not apply, they will not be enrolled. Charter schools are usually in charge of their own application processes, and many impose a daunting array of conditions. These include lengthy application forms such as a required essay simply to get into the lottery, mandatory character references, parents required to visit the school before applying, short time windows to file the applications, special ‘pre-enrollment’ periods for insiders, and admissions tests to determine grade placement or learning group. These policies and practices can directly turn away families (I’m sorry, but you can’t enroll here because you didn’t visit). Further, they can serve their purpose by discouraging parents who lack the time, resources, or overall commitment to jump through the hoops.

#5: As Long As You Don’t Get Caught: Illegal and Dicey Practices

As noted earlier, Simon (2013) documents instances of charter schools that require applications to “present Social Security cards and birth certificates for their applications to be considered, even though such documents cannot be required under federal law.” She also notes some schools that require special needs applicants to document their disabilities – which may or may not be illegal but which is certainly contrary to the intent and spirit of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Such policies will have the effect of discouraging special needs students and, in some communities, minimizing the enrollment of immigrant students. Another troubling, and possibly illegal, practice involves elementary-level charters with attached, private pre-k schools that charge substantial tuition – and the using of that pre-k school to funnel students into the public charter and thereby create a wealthier student demographic (see, e.g., Dreilinger, 2012; Ferguson, 2011; Ferguson & Royal, 2011).

#6: Send Us Your Best: Conditions Placed on Enrollment

Simon’s (2013) article also pointed to “One charter high school in [California that] will not consider applicants with less than a 2.0 grade point average. Another will only admit students who passed Algebra I in middle school with a grade of B or better.” She also points to states that allow a charter school to give an admissions preference to students based on a demonstration of interest in that school’s theme or focus: “Some schools use that leeway to screen for students who are ready for advanced math classes or have stellar standardized test scores.” Other charter schools, including KIPP, require that students and their families commit to longer school days and school hours. Many also require so-called ‘sweat equity’ contracts from parents, whereby they commit to contribute service to the school. As with conditions placed on applications, these conditions of enrollment can work by directly turning away families as well as by discouraging families perceived to be less desirable.

#7: The Bum Steer

Connected to these application and enrollment practices is the old practice of steering away less desirable students (Fiore, et al., 2000). The typical scenario involves the parent of a high-needs child who drops by the school to inquire about enrolling and is told that opportunities for that child will be much richer at the public school down the road. These are among the allegations in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit against the Recovery School District in New Orleans (Mock, 2010).

#8: Not In Service

As noted above, a charter school may or may not have services designed to meet the needs of a given group of higher-needs children. For instance, teachers with TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) training or certification may be unavailable. Similarly, a charter school may not have the resources necessary to meet the special needs of a child with so-called low-incidence disabilities. But even reading specialists, for instance, may be unavailable. While a charter school may not, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), be legality entitled to reject a students with special needs and his or her individualized education plan (IEP), pointing out the unavailability of resources and services is often sufficient to do the trick (Welner & Howe, 2005).

#9: The Fitness Test: Counseling Out

Parents of less successful students or those who are viewed as a poor fit may simply be told that they should consider a different option. This is usually accomplished through ongoing meetings with the charter schools’ teachers and administrators. (Bobby isn’t responding well to instruction, getting along well with other students, etc.) In a school choice context, a reasonable way to address a disappointing experience is to seek out a different school, and a nudge from school staff can help move this process along.

#10: Flunk or Leave: Grade Retention

One such nudge can be provided by telling the student and parent that if the student remains at the school, she will be retained in grade. Grade retention is extensively used, for instance, at KIPP charter schools. One effect of such policies is to rebuke less successful students and to suggest that those students may do better elsewhere (and to inform them that they will have to go elsewhere if they want to graduate on time).

#11: Discipline and Punish

Charter schools’ discipline policies generally differ from those of their nearby school districts. Washington DC’s charter schools, for example, have much higher expulsion rates than do district schools (Brown, 2013). The New York Times wrote in 2012 about a charter school in Chicago that has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from students for infractions like “not looking a teacher in the eye” (Vevea, 2012). Through direct expulsion and through harsh discipline regimes, such charter schools are able to maintain a more controlled school environment, but one effect of doing so is the selective removal of students who are more disruptive – or, in the case of the Chicago school, less able to afford the fines.

#12: Going Mobile (Or Not)

Low-income communities across the country tend to have high rates of student mobility. Many students exit and enter each year and – most disruptively for all – during the school year. Neighborhood public schools generally have no power to limit this mobility and must focus instead on minimizing the disruption. Charter schools, however, can decide to enroll few or no new students during the year or in higher grades. Researchers refer to this addition of new students as a choice of whether or not to “backfill” the students charters lose through normal attrition or through counseling out. A related issue is the common practice among new charter schools of ‘feeding from below.’ To illustrate, imagine a new charter authorized to serve grades k-8. Such a school would often open with just grades k-2, and then each year would bring in a new kindergarten cohort and extend up one year, to k-3, then k-4, and so on. This approach tends to create stability and to screen out more transient students and families.

The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know. Noam Chomsky

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Twitter: @ProfessorJVH

Click here for Vitae.


  • “The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know.”

    I guess that’s me — the general population. Though I do see how the “dirty dozen” can be side effects, I’m not so sure this is being done intentionally to exclude.

    Here’s the deal — Why would I, or any parent, want to send my child to a school, any school (public, charter, or private) that can’t best serve their needs?

    As I mentioned in another post, there is no way that charter schools can compete with public schools — it’s financially impossible. So why would we expect charter schools to provide the same services to the same population? What would be the purpose of such a school? How could such a school even hope to be different, better than a public school, if not by, as you mentioned, the raw materials it starts with — the students, and more specifically, the families they come from.

    I am all too familiar with educational trade-offs. If only I could find a free, safe, convenient, Montessori-Classical hybrid, dual language school with technology infused classrooms, doctorate teachers, and champion sports that isn’t afraid to at least acknowledge different faiths while still providing the most normal school experience? It doesn’t exist. I know, I’ve searched. So we settle for the best we can afford, hoping all along that our children will turn out ok.

    That’s the private school connundrum. Private school tuition in San Antonio runs from free to 20K per year, PER STUDENT. Teachers are paid up to 75% less than ISD’s. There are limited resouces & programs. Discipline policies are strict and parents are expected to volunteer. Why then are there so many private schools? It’s not because the buildings are nicer (than public schools) or the curriculum any better. The magic thread that binds all private schools is the common mindset among the student’s families — that education is a priority worth paying for, and not to be taken lightly.

    Having taught at both public & private schools, I can tell you the difference is a balance between the school’s educational philosophy and the student’s & parent’s commitment. At the school where I taught, they did not accept anyone that didn’t want to be there and who’s parents didn’t commit to the formation process. If a student didn’t behave, there were several more on the waiting list ready to take that spot.

    The biggest problem I had with students that came from public schools was they expected to get by without hard work. I was constantly having to remind them they would not just get passed, we had no problem retaining a student if they didn’t perform. And we were honest with parents about our limitations — we were not equipped to handle special ed.

    As a business model, that’s the problem with public education — you can’t be all things to all people. Look around — the world is going the way of specialization. Why then are we faulting charter schools for not being true public schools?


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